By Geoff Olson

Whatever happened to socially observable time?

For most of the last century, the North American cultural landscape— its art, music, design, entertainment, and fashion — transformed every 10 to 20 years. “But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new,” Kurt Anderson observed in a 2011 Vanity Fair article.

In the three years since Anderson’s article, there has been little to contradict the author’s words.

Other than our electronic gadgets and their associated services, striking originality has been in short supply for over a decade.  Automobiles have barely changed in design. Musical styles are recycled, from nineties’ grunge and hip hop to eighties’ synth to seventies’ soul. Architecture hasn’t really moved past Frank Gehry’s melting edifices of the nineties. As for films, in the late eighties, Hollywood producers began to rifle through the back catalogue of sixties-era Marvel and DC Comics, and we’ve been flooded with superhero sagas and sequels ever since.

Fashion is also in suspended animation, confined to a bowerbird aesthetic that gathers handbags and glad rags from previous decades. The vintage look – with its porkpie hats, plaid shirts, and moustaches – is more about depression-era chic than hipster originality.

Online commentators have pegged this phenomenon of stalled time, “hauntology,” in homage to the late postmodernist thinker, Jacques Derrida. The French prof mused about a supposed “end of history,” in which the present would be defined in terms of the past, with people orienting themselves towards ideas and aesthetics that are antiquated or “old-timey.” Hence the “haunting” of the present by the  “ghost” of the past.

Derrida’s clever wordplay raises more questions about cultural stagnation than answers. The most practical explanation I have found yet is from the blog of BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis.

In a recent  lengthy post, “Now Then: The Hidden Systems That Have Frozen Time and Stop Us Changing The World,” Curtis begins with a capsule history of surveillance, from private detective agencies to tiny, Bond-like spy cameras to the data-mining server farms of  corporations.  This takes him toward “the incredibly powerful computer network” Aladdin, which guides the investment of over $15 trillion of assets around the world.

Aladdin examines all possible future financial outcomes and guides investments toward those with the best possible outcome. It’s owned by the big money manager Blackrock, which “manages as much money as all the hedge-funds and the private equity firms in the world put together.”  In effect, “Blackrock’s system is in shaping the world – it’s more powerful in some respects than traditional politics…it’s aim is to not change the world – but to keep it stable,” Curtis observes.

If you’re looking for dark forces behind this, the filmmaker observes that Blackrock is not run by some moustache-twirling villain, but a “very cautious man” called Larry Fink. The computerized financial systems widwifed by technocrats – Aladdin is just one example – do not just hedge against risk.  They help ensure transformative futures are nixed (the architects of the so-called free market are not big on massive unpredictability).

Curtis gives a parallel example from the world of politics, from the field of “opposition research.” Political candidates are frequently trailed by videographers recording their public remarks. The videographers’ employers aren’t just patrolling for gaffes. As big game hunters in the digital age, they use videoclip databanks of the candidate’s previous public appearances to identify contradictory statements of any kind. It’s all in the service of attack ads.

“So the politicians become frozen and immobile – because they have to have a blameless history. Which again seems laudable. But it means they can’t change their mind. They can’t adapt to the world as it changes.”

The old ways of doing things electorally – of gerrymandered, mud-slinging, first-past-post politics – are not altered by information technology, but frozen into place by it, Curtis suggests. Machine intelligence is quickly evolving under the careful tending of software engineers, while our political systems are still marooned in the past, along with much of our art, architecture, design, film, fashion, and music.
There are undoubtably other forces at work keeping  our culture on repeat play. But Curtis has made a good start in identifying a few of the suspects.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 15

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